Pet Connections

New Orleans is not like any other typical American city

New Orleans is not like any other typical American city.  It’s hot, humid, sweaty,  laid back, easy and exotic.  This is New Orleans, queen city of the South.  This rich eclectic culture is what drew me to New Orleans and is why it will forever hold a special place in my heart and always be a part my soul.

Saturday August 29, 2015, is the arrival of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleanians will commemorate this anniversary in a variety of ways. We will remember the lives lost, a community and people changed, but also the strength of those people in that community which created an amazing resurgence of  the entire New Orleans area.  Katrina is a reminder to us all that life is fragile in the face of mother nature, and can be taken from us in an instant.  I became one of the thousands of victims that Katrina changed forever.  

After working an overnight weekend shift at an emergency veterinary hospital in New Orleans, I had to make a quick decision to pack only the essentials needed to evacuate, such as a bookbag  containing clothing and my pets.  My hometown, Miami Florida, was not an option for evacuation because Katrina had already made her way through Miami resulting in my family not having electricity or clean running water.  Being that the majority of New Orleans was evacuating to Texas, I decided to evacuate to Pittsburgh to visit a friend….just like any other typical evacuation.  The following 22 hours were exhausting.  I left New Orleans on Sunday, August 28, 2005 at 9:45 am and arrived to Pittsburgh, Monday, August 29, 2005 at 5:45 am.  I remember passing out as soon as I had arrived to my friend’s house in Lawrenceville.  I woke up at 8:30 am to see the news and no reports of flooding had occurred just yet.  The news crew was reporting how the French Quarter was affected some,  but not to the degree they had predicted.  It seemed like everything was going to be ok.  I went back to bed and woke up at noon, and turned on the news to learn from a reporter, “The water is starting to rise in the city of New Orleans”.  That news report forever changed the path of my life.  Day after day I would turn on the news for updates, watching the less fortunate be stuck in the superdome with no help.  I remember watching people walking through  the flood with their animals in plastic containers keeping them dry.  I remember watching the elderly placed in canoes as family members pulled them through flood waters.   It was an intense scene, and I was an emotional rollercoaster watching the constant news coverage.  I really wanted to be able to do something to help.

Two weeks after the storm made landfall,  I was contacted by the Humane Society of the United States.  They asked that as soon as the water was pumped out of the city, if  I would return and work alongside the Colorado National Guard’s 3650th Maintenance Company and help rescue animals that were left behind.  They needed veterinarians  that knew their way around the city and I offered to help.  I contacted shelters and animal hospitals in Pittsburgh for donations.  Any donation from food to towels were  accepted.  I packed my car and headed south.   

Upon my arrival, New Orleans was in complete lockdown.   No one was allowed to go in or out of the city unless documentation from the government was provided.   Once I was cleared to go into the city,   I immediately headed to my apartment to assess the damage.  The  water had risen to my doorstep but not flooded my apartment.  Although my apartment did not flood,  there was moisture and mold everywhere.   I realized quickly that my apartment was a complete loss. Nothing there could be saved, so I moved on to see the condition of the veterinary clinic where I had worked.   I headed towards Buccaneer Villa Animal Hospital in St. Bernard Parish.   The building had collapsed and all was gone.  I flagged down a Fire truck to help me find the control box that contained medications.  I obtained whatever medications I could find that I knew may be needed in a situation as dire as this.

 I started the search for animals in abandoned buildings, overgrown shrubbery and, most notably, the spray painted  Katrina-“X” symbol tagged  homes.   I had to learn the meaning of the symbol which is the following: the northern sector of the X denotes the date; the southern gives the number of victims/animals found alive or dead; the western identifies the rescue team and the eastern depicts the current hazards of the home.   One of the strangest cases  I  remember, was finding a  herd of cows  behind a house that had survived.   Clean fresh water was an essential so I  found a canoe and thought it was perfect for a trough.  I flagged down a fire truck from Illinois and the firefighters were kind enough to fill the canoe with water.   

As I continued my search and rescue,  I came across a group of  veterinarians in the area that had traveled  from Virginia and Tennessee to help.  We worked together as a team and built Camp Lucky in an abandoned warehouse.  The military helped build pens while volunteers from all over the country began identifying each animal that was brought in.  A man and his family had snuck into the city in hopes of finding  his dog.  Word of mouth led him to Camp Lucky.     Miraculously, a team member did find his dog and showed him where he was.  As soon as the dog saw him, the dog began howling for joy (he was a husky).  As soon as we took the dog out of the crate, the dog got on his hind legs and hugged his owner.  Our staff was in tears and the reunion made it more of a mission to continue rescuing these animals.  Aside from joyous reunions, there were tragic cases.  A fire fighter had dropped off a severely dehydrated cat that was in need of intravenous fluids for rehydration. Within the hour, the cat was stable and we had learned that the owner had passed away in her home because she did not want to leave her animals behind.  We later learned that was one of the many reasons why some of  the elderly had perished .   Some of these people were my clients.

For 2 weeks, I lived on a Naval Ship in Violet, Louisiana while continuing rescues.  Then came the news that another Hurricane named Rita was on her way to further damage what Katrina had already done.  The mayor had asked us to release the animals we had saved and to evacuate.  That was not an option after sacrificing 2 weeks of rescuing.  A good samaritan  sent his 747 jet to pick up the rescued animals and relocate them to  California in hopes that pet owners would be able to find their pets through Pet Finder.  

After my 2 weeks of search and rescue, I knew I had to leave New Orleans.  As a veterinarian, there would be no jobs for many months as the city needed to rebuild.  I decided to try out Pittsburgh being I had never lived up North.  The rest is history.  Pittsburgh gave me a chance to start my life over.  Through 10 years of living in Pittsburgh, I met my husband, made many great friends and started a successful veterinary practice in Lawrenceville. My hospital is called the Big Easy Animal Hospital, named after my beloved New Orleans.   I am forever grateful that Pittsburgh welcomed me with open arms and gave me a chance to rebuild.  

Big Easy Animal Hospital Announces Big Expansion

Dr. Aileen Ruiz always wanted to be a veterinarian, but she never expected to become a Pittsburgher. The Miami native held fast to her dream of helping animals throughout college and veterinary school. After she earned her veterinary license, Dr. Ruiz started practicing in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Dr. Ruiz was forced to evacuate the city with little more than a backpack, her diploma, two dogs and a cat. Fate brought her to Pittsburgh and she decided to make Pittsburgh her home.  In July of 2010, Dr. Ruiz opened the “Big Easy Animal Hospital” on Butler Street in Lawrenceville.  Big Easy is the only hispanic veterinary practice in the city of Pittsburgh.  In the last 5 years, they have gained a reputation for professional and compassionate care of their clients’ pets. The practice has become so popular that they’ve outgrown their Butler Street office. 

Early in 2015, Dr. Ruiz announced that the Big Easy Animal Hospital would be moving to a new larger facility at 12 McCandless Avenue in Lawrenceville. The newly remodeled 15,000 square foot facility was transformed into a full service animal hospital with state of the art operating room and radiology center. An on-site laboratory and pharmacy will facilitate getting your pet the relief they need as quickly as possible. Clients will appreciate the new facility’s large parking lot. This off street parking is not only more convenient for clients, but is safer and less stressful for the pet. The new Big Easy Animal Hospital will open on June 22nd for wellness and preventive care, urgent care, animal surgery and micro chipping.

In addition to veterinary services, the new Big Easy Animal Hospital will offer a wide range of services for local “pet parents.” As of Saturday, August, 1, 2015, Dr. Ruiz’s staff will begin offering “Doggie Daycare” services. They will be open early for drop off and late for pick-ups to allow pet owners to make sure their furry friends are cared for and happy before they go off to their office or a shift at one of the local hospitals. If you have to go out of town, the Big Easy Animal Hospital will provide on-site boarding. To keep your pet looking good, the new facility will also offer expert pet grooming services. Big Easy Animal Hospital is the only veterinary practice in the city of Pittsburgh that offers doggie daycare and dog/cat boarding under the supervision of  veterinarians on site.

You and your best friend will be able to relax at the Big Easy Animal Hospital’s unique pet friendly café. You’ll be able to enjoy a latte and a snack while your pet munches on a gourmet dog treat and laps up a cool bowl of water. On warm summer days, you and your pet may want to relax on the café’s large outdoor deck. There is nothing better than relaxing on a sunny afternoon with a delicious beverage while sharing time with your best and most faithful friend. The Big Easy Animal Hospital is sure to become very popular with local residents of both the 2 and 4 footed varieties. 

Dr. Ruiz and her staff invite the public to stop by during their “Grand Opening” on Saturday, August 29, which marks the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The Grand Opening will start at 4pm and end at 8pm.  New Orleanians will commemorate – in myriad ways – the lives lost, the lives changed, and the resurgence of the city and region in the years since the epic flooding that followed the failure of the federal levees. Dr. Ruiz plans to launch the new location in true New Orleans style by partnering with Pittsburgh’s preeminent Louisiana style restaurant “NOLA on the Square” and bringing in local jazz musicians to entertain their guests. You won’t want to miss this great event. To learn more about the Big Easy Animal Hospital visit their informative website at    


December 14, 2023
December 14, 2023


November 20, 2023